Turtle and Dugong Conservation Plan for the Kimberley Region

The Indigenous Salt Water Advisory Group (ISWAG) have launched a 10 year plan for sea turtle and dugong protection in the Kimberley. Sea turtles and dugongs hold significant cultural and conservational importance in the region. The plan, launched in December 2021, brings together Indigenous saltwater managers to address the ongoing environmental threats these precious species face.

ISWAIndigenous Salt Water Advisory Group. Courtesy of the Kimberley Land Council Facebook, 2021.

ISWAG is an Indigenous led and facilitated forum that focuses upon managing and protecting the Kimberley coast. The forum includes members from nine Prescribed Native Title Body Corporates (PBCs), including Balanggarra, Wunambal Gaambera, Dambimangari, Mayala, Bardi Jawi, Nyul Nyul, Yawuru, Karajarri and Nyangumarta. Together these groups represent traditional owners from 90% of the Kimberley Coastline (Kimberley Land Council, 2021).

This latest initiative is a long-term management plan that seeks to both protect sea turtle and dugong populations, as well as ensuring that Indigenous livelihoods, culture and practices are supported. To achieve this, the groups are combining western conservation science and Indigenous knowledge of these animals and their habitat. In an interview with NIT (2021), ISWAG Co-Chair Daniel Oades spoke about the importance of Indigenous knowledge in protecting these species and the Kimberley coastline:

“Both animals are culturally significant to all relevant Native Title groups, both species remain in healthy Country plans for those groups, and beyond being a primary food source over the years, [the] traditional knowledge of these species is immense.”

Montgomery ReefMontgomery Reef, Kimberley coast. Courtesy Tourism Western Australia, 2022.

The Kimberley region for many years has remained one of the last near-pristine coastal environments in the world. Yet now the health of the Kimberley reefs is deteriorating, which is in turn affecting the health and growth of sea turtle and dugong populations. With sea temperatures increasing, the reefs are being hit hard by climate change (The Guardian, 2019). This has caused coral bleaching and often a loss of seagrass, which is dugongs primary food source. Increased temperatures are also affecting the breeding of turtles. In particular, there has been a loss on nesting areas on overheated beaches, and the sex ratio offspring has become unbalaned due to warmer temperatures producing more females (Science Daily, 2010).

DugongsDugong. Courtesy of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, 2022.

ISWAG’s initiative hopes to develop foundational ecological and biological knowledge, expanding upon two way knowledge systems that draw on science and Indigenous knowledge. The Kimberley coastline is covered by a number of marine parks jointly managed by state and federal governments and traditional owners, as well as Indigenous Protected Areas. This plan enables a coordinated effort by these many different entities that will include consistent monitoring and data collection for researchers. Through this collaborative approach, ISWAG hopes to bring about an outcome that best protects sea turtles, dugongs and the Kimberly's precious waters (NIT, 2021). 

Here at Yarn, we love being able to share stories from Indigenous communities who are achieving incredible things for the protection of their Country and culture. While climate change is going to continue to be something that affects us, it is heartening to know that groups such as ISWAG are protecting some of Australia’s most unique and vulnerable species. In the coming years, we hope to see sea turtles and dugongs continue to flourish.